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Deciding DOMA

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The US Supreme Court is hearing legal challenges this week to two major pieces of LGBT-related legislation: California's Prop 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Voters in California narrowly approved a ban on same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8, in November 2008. The ban was upheld by the California Supreme Court in May 2009, but overturned by a district court judge. That judge's ruling was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

DOMA, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. (Both Bill and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have recently called for DOMA's repeal). The federal law is often in conflict with state laws in states that permit same-sex marriage, trapping couples in the middle.

"I call it 'whack a gay,'" says Bess Watts, a well-known area LGBT activist. "When Anne and I go to Utah [for example], we're legal strangers. There are so many protections that come with the federal government."

Watts and her wife, Anne Tischer, were married in 2005 in Niagara Falls, Canada.

"It's in a time of crisis that you need protection the most," Watts says. "And that's Social Security survivor benefits, Medicaid, Estate Tax...and those are all federal. Those are what I call the 'holy grail' of benefits."

DOMA impacts more than 1,000 federal laws, says Mariko Hirose, staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The DOMA case only deals with Section 3 of the law, which defines marriage, for federal purposes, as between a man and a woman. But Watts says that any challenge to DOMA is worthwhile.

"This is not about marriage at all," she says. "This is about our place in society. It's one more card in the house of cards [that could] fall. It really, truly is historic."

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments on Prop 8 on Tuesday, March 26, with the DOMA hearing scheduled for Wednesday, March 27. Decisions in both cases aren't expected for several weeks.

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